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Man is Shot and Killed by the Officers He Called to Help Search for Stolen Bike. Is it a Livable Streets Issue?

Three teens are detained and frisked for weapons on Ave. 50 and York Blvd. in Highland Park. They were stopped while waiting for friends.  Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Three teens are detained and frisked for weapons on Ave. 50 and York Blvd. in Highland Park. They were stopped while waiting for friends. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Several months ago, I asked that a link to a story on the beating of Clinton Alford by LAPD officers be included in our daily headlines.

The 22-year-old African-American man had been riding his bike along Avalon Blvd. near 55th St. in South L.A. one night when a car pulled up alongside him and someone inside shouted at him to stop. Because the man didn't identify himself as a police officer, Alford told the L.A. Times, when the men came after him and grabbed the back of his bike, he took off running.

Once he realized they were cops, he lay down voluntarily and allowed them to restrain him.

That's when another car pulled up, a heavyset officer ran over, and the assault on the restrained young man began in earnest.

“I was just praying that they wouldn’t kill me," he said of the blows that repeatedly rained down on his head and slight frame. "I just closed my eyes and tried to hold on.”

A reader objected to the inclusion of the link in the headlines, arguing that it was racism that had prompted the attack, not the fact that the young man was bicycling, and that I shouldn't try to push an agenda on our readers.

I was disappointed by the comment -- it is well-known that law enforcement has long associated bikes with criminality, substance abuse, and gangs in lower-income communities of color. In Alford's case, they assumed he was leaving a crime scene, despite the fact that he did not fit the description of the robbery suspect they were searching for.

But I wasn't surprised by the comment, either.

The idea that someone's race or status can be separated from their ability to move through the public space is a sentiment I come up against consistently in a variety of forums within the livable streets advocacy community. It manifests both in the non-inclusion of such issues in policy (like Vision Zero) and in the categorization of the hostility of the public space to people of color as separate from issues of livability. It doesn't mean advocates don't care about the problem. But it does mean they may not know where it fits in to livability or how.

Even at Streetsblog NYC, editor Ben Fried, in response to the Eric Garner ruling, wrote of

...grappling with how and whether the site should cover these incidents of police violence. Do the killings fall within the Streetsblog beat? My first inclination was to say they do not. I don’t believe there is something intrinsic to the streets of Staten Island or Ferguson to explain the deadly force that Pantaleo and Darren Wilson applied against unarmed black men. Wilson did initially stop Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson for jaywalking, but another pretense could have been concocted — none of the other high-profile police killings in recent months began with a jaywalking stop.

Much like the commenter, he essentially points to racism as the problem.

Which, of course, it is.

But racism has never been a passive noun. It colors the assumptions we make about those around us -- who they are and what their intentions might be. And when those assumptions manifest in the behavior of those tasked with the authority of defining "security" and monitoring the public space, we have a livable streets issue on our hands.

Advocates need to accept that part of keeping streets "safe" and "livable" for everyone else has involved curbing the "threats" to their security. And that while cars, bad design, and a blatant disregard for the rights of those on foot or on bikes are certainly a massive component of that, those "threats" have also been construed as people of color attempting to engage in the very thing that livability advocates seek to encourage -- unfettered movement through the public space.

As I've documented in a number of stories on this site, assumptions about the criminality of black and brown pedestrians and cyclists have made them easy targets for law enforcement who regularly stop, question, harass, demean, hand bogus tickets to, and even arrest them for resisting arrest (only to release them days later on no charge).

And not just in Los Angeles.

Folks in Florida had their bikes confiscated by officers who assumed they had stolen them. Youth activists in Boston were told they "looked suspicious" and that people in their neighborhoods ride bikes "to shoot people." In the Bay Area, Richmond Spokes staff members were harassed in front of advocate Brian Drayton’s home because, according to Drayton’s summary of the supervising officer’s remarks, “80% of the cyclist [sic] in Richmond at night are involved in drug, robbery, and violent offenses and [officers are] just keeping the community safe by profiling cyclist [sic] the Iron Triangle." And, most famously, there is New York's stop-and-frisk policy, in which black and Latino pedestrians and cyclists were more likely to be subjected to opportunistic, invasive, and forceful stops, "despite the fact that whites [were] more likely to be found with weapons or contraband."

The digital documentation of these kinds of incidents is making it harder and harder for people to ignore the structural nature of the problem. The nation is finally beginning to have some of the painful but necessary conversations about the way people of color are policed in the public space.

But livability advocates still seem reluctant to bring these issues into their policy conversations. Even when these issues are raised, the discussions often veer back toward calls for better enforcement of traffic laws and a focus on curbing bad driver behavior rather than calling out the institutionalization of discrimination in our city structures and policies or exploring options for improving the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color as a way to make streets more inviting and accessible for all.

I saw this firsthand two years ago, when Gardena police stopped some of South L.A.'s well-known cycling superheroes for "impeding traffic" on a memorial ride for hit-and-run victim Benjamin Torres. It was obvious from video of the incident that the turn the stop took was racial in nature. The cyclists were not told right away why they were stopped, they were ordered to sit down and turn around, the male cyclists of color were asked about weapons and frisked, back-up units were called -- despite the "violation" supposedly being just a traffic one, and the female officer was evasive when asked for her badge number.

Advocates that took up their cause felt more comfortable arguing the case via a more straightforward avenue -- the fact that the cops were unfamiliar with the traffic laws they were tasked with enforcing. Profiling and bias, I was told, were awkward to interject into the conversation and hard to substantiate. And raising concerns about the shooting of Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, 34, and Eutiquio Acevedo Mendez, 21, just one month prior to open a dialogue regarding the GPD's apparent penchant for seeing poor cyclists of color as potential criminals was totally out of the question.

It frustrated me then and it frustrates me now, as I watch the recently-released video of Diaz Zeferino trying to shield cyclists Mendez and Jose Garcia and explain to officers that they were the ones that had called the officers for help. Someone else had stolen his brother's bike from outside a drugstore at 2 that morning.

I understood why the officers were tense and on alert in the video. Thanks to the dispatcher's miscommunication of the incident as a "robbery," the officers were under the mistaken impression that force may have been used in the theft of the bike. So they did not know whether or not the two men they detained on bikes were armed.

But I struggled to understand how the incident could have unfolded the way it did, ending with Diaz Zeferino being so coldly gunned down.

Prior to the start of the video, Diaz Zeferino -- who had been searching for the stolen bike on foot -- had run toward Sergeant Christopher Cuff (the first officer on the scene) and the detained cyclists with his hands out in front of him. Garcia and Mendez testified he had explained to officers that the cyclists were not the suspects the officers were searching for.

But the officers on the scene didn't listen to Diaz Zeferino, according to the cyclists. Whether the officers that arrived moments later as back-up (some of whom fired shots at him) heard or understood what he was trying to say is very hard to know.

Diaz Zeferino is not given a chance to explain himself in the recorded portion of the stop, even as it seems very clear from the video that that is what he is trying to do. And he is not given the benefit of the doubt, despite the fact that the two cyclists stopped do not fully match the clothing description of the suspects, despite the fact that Diaz Zeferino had approached Cuff, something Cuff acknowledged under questioning that "he had never seen a robbery suspect [do]," and despite the language barrier, which seems to have made Cuff more suspicious of the men [seeing them as noncompliant and agitated] rather than concerned that miscommunications might be coloring the officers' ability to properly assess and resolve the situation. [Read more of Cuff's direct testimony here]

And in testimony given to the D.A., the officers who fired on the men do not mention any communication with Diaz Zeferino.

Instead, they appear to have taken their lead from an "agitated" Cuff, who they describe as looking and sounding "scared." Cuff, for his part, claimed that the fact that the two cyclists had "slowed their bicycles to a crawl" when they saw him was “cause for concern" [it implied guilt, as did movements Diaz Zeferino made that he categorized as "furtive"] and that he had felt threatened because Diaz Zeferino's noncompliance with orders to keep his hands up meant he was “vacillat[ing] between resistive and life-threatening.”

And the cyclists themselves had apparently not been asked about what they were doing out on bikes at that hour or what their involvement in the theft was -- Cuff's own testimony indicates that when he stopped the men, he simply ordered them to the ground, called for back-up, and had no other communication with them.

The result is what we see in the video: the massive show of force -- at least seven officers were pointing weapons at the three men; the escalation of the stop -- the screaming of commands from several directions that heightened the tension the officers experienced, panicked the detainees, and made it difficult for the officers to communicate with each other and/or de-escalate the situation; the lack of communication between the detainees and the officers; the interpretation of the detainees' actions and demeanor as sinister; and officers' failure to recognize they were dealing with men who were somewhat intoxicated and whose actions were further affected by the fact that they were confused, innocent, and not native English speakers.

It's incredibly hard to watch.

And hard to believe that two unarmed guys could end up shot -- one of them dead -- just for trying to help a friend and brother find his stolen bike.

As I write this, it occurs to me that few of our readers from the white cycling community will be shaking their heads, thinking, "Yeah, that could have been me." Members of the white community, cyclists or otherwise, are rarely treated the way Diaz Zeferino and his friends were. Disrespected and dismissed when speaking up about pedestrians' or cyclists' safety? Absolutely. Assumed to be at fault in collisions? All the time. Unfairly ticketed because officers don't know the law? Indeed. But seen as a mortal threat by and unable to get assistance from the very officers they call for help? Probably not.

Many of our readers of color will be able to relate, however, either personally or via people they know, stories they've heard, or the fears they have about how their sons will be treated when they step out the front door. The terrifying scenario that the video presents is an extreme but unfortunately not-so-unfamiliar snapshot of what many Angelenos of color -- particularly those that are lower-income -- experience when they are stopped by police.

While most engagements thankfully don't end in shots fired, even a combination of just a few of the tactics seen in the video or others commonly used -- the drawing of weapons (or placing of hands on weapons, just to let the detainee know they are ready to draw), the yelling, the threats, the intimidation, the lack of communication, the calling for back-up, the use of racial slurs, the dismissal of any attempt by those stopped to speak up before they are humiliatingly detained, invasively searched, and/or handcuffed, and the use of force -- conspire to make those stopped feel powerless, dehumanized, and, in some cases, afraid for their lives. From a young age, these kinds of interactions signal to people of color that, when they move through the public space, they are seen as a threat. And that they are the ones that will pay the consequences for being seen that way.

This treatment of people of color as suspicious and threatening, as Fried and the commenter who originally inspired this post argue, is indeed a product of racism and bias. It goes beyond the arena of planning and the public space, and so must its solutions. Of this there is no question.

But the issue should still be of concern to streets advocates.

Advocates cannot continue to exhort residents in urban communities to "see their streets as sites of recreation!" without acknowledging that the barriers to access, safety, and security that affect a significant portion of the population cannot be fixed with traffic-calming bulb-outs or parklets.

Where advocates are working to renew, revive, and re-invent urban centers -- particularly in those undergoing gentrification -- law enforcement is being asked to have a stronger and more visible presence. Understandably, as people come back to the city and build community and family, they want to know that their streets are safe for them to live, work, and play in.

But that sense of security for the newer white and/or well-to-do residents can't continue to come, as it does far too often, at the expense of the less well-to-do residents of color.

Besides the overt and intensified policing of folks of color being just plain wrong, it is harmful to us all. It encourages segregation by signaling to the new residents that they need to be wary of rubbing shoulders with people of other stripes and statuses. And it complicates the existing residents' access to the new amenities that come with increased livability, effectively communicating to those residents that they have no contributions to make to the future version of their own neighborhood.

But even where communities are not experiencing turnover, like where Diaz Zeferino was killed, advocates' efforts to implement more complete street design elements and encourage active transportation will be of little value if cyclists of color are viewed suspiciously and targeted for a stop every time they head out for a spin in the shiny new bike lane in their neighborhood.

Finding a way to engage law enforcement as a partner in planning as neighborhoods change and grow is therefore key to building the strong, healthy, active, vibrant, and inclusive communities advocates claim they wish to see.

We have done very well as a community at identifying the proper outlets through which to address the biases against cyclists held by law enforcement. And doing so has facilitated mobility and enhanced the quality of life for many urban residents who have taken up more active forms of transportation. But we have more to do. We also need to acknowledge that the very vehicle that represents freedom for some residents is often seen by law enforcement as an opportunity to limit the freedom and mobility of others. Because as long as accessibility to the public space remains fraught for such a large proportion of the population, our streets can never be considered fully livable or complete.

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